Fasting, fat shaming and finding Christ in my body
After I took too many pieces of French toast for breakfast one morning when I was 12, my mom suggested I was, perhaps, getting a bit overweight—not fat, no, but maybe you might have put on more weight than was healthy? With these words, she introduced me to a body I had never really looked at before. I did not like what I saw.
The Lebanese side of my family has a long and storied history of commenting on fatness. My mom often recalls how her uncle told her she needed a girdle when she was all of 5 years old. At the first glimpse of an even moderately fleshly person at a shop, my grandmother would remark aloud: “Look at the size of that woman. Allah isadni [God help me].” (I would turn my eyes to the sky and tell God he has to help me first.)
My mother’s comments about other women’s weight always carried a moral judgment: The “overweight” girls in ballet class had bad parents who let them eat too much; my religion teacher did not eat “right” (“or maybe she has thyroid problems”); “obese” people generally are a drain on the health care system. Like smokers and my cohabitating cousin, fat people wear their supposed sins in public, my mother reasoned. And so their bodies were available for public comment.
Like smokers and my cohabitating cousin, fat people wear their supposed sins in public, my mother reasoned.
Before the French toast incident, I did not believe that I could be fat. I did not have a sophisticated sense of morality, but I was convinced that I was a good person. And a good person could not be fat. I hid Hershey’s Kisses around my room and ate Mars bars after Robin Eggs after M&Ms sneaked from the kitchen cupboard as I spent long summer days draped over the velvet armchair, devouring books on alien abductions and navel probes. A sedentary life of chocolate would not change me. I simply was not fat.
Really, I did not much notice that I had a body at all, or I tried to hide it. Sports bras, shapeless corduroys and tees, necklines that covered my collarbone no matter the weather: A mix of anxious modesty and gender dysphoria organized my wardrobe to make my body disappear.
But when Mom observed that I was overweight, she verbalized my body into existence. Stretch marks, chicken wings, cellulite—what I previously considered the concerns of middle-aged women on sitcoms were suddenly embedded in my flesh.
When Mom observed that I was overweight, she verbalized my body into existence.
I woke up the next day with a plan. My middle-school health textbook had a detailed breakdown of the number of calories in different foods, the number of calories burned in different exercises and the number of calories you would have to cut each week in order to lose a pound. I started counting calories obsessively: For a 300-calorie dinner, a serving of SpaghettiOs had 170 calories, and if I mixed that with 30 calories of green beans and drank 80 calories of milk, I still had 20 calories that I could bank toward Thanksgiving dinner. I started biking obsessively: a minimum of 30 minutes every day, first outdoors and later indoors after my parents agreed that we should buy a stationary bike with its own calorie counter.
For a short while, I lost a little weight, gained a surprising amount of muscle in my calves, and my waistline came back.
But my lackluster follow-through deteriorated into an unhealthy obsession with food. The more forbidden a brownie was, the less I was able to resist the temptation to sneak a corner, then a sliver, then a third of the pan. Instead of Commandments, I memorized calorie counts. When I caught colds, I tried to figure out how to eat even less, since I was not exercising. When I laid limp on the couch with the stomach flu, I reveled in the pleasure of the 10 pounds I lost and promised myself not to regain them. (I did.)
My doctor and after-school TV programs told me to look at the women around me and understand that fleshliness was normal. But to my perfectionist mind normal did not make it good. It just meant everyone was screwed up—especially me, since I knew better.
Instead of Commandments, I memorized calorie counts.
The Madonna of Medjugorje is said to have instructed her followers to fast from everything but bread and water twice a week until the end times. When I fell into the Medjugorje fad, however, I found myself unmatched for a bread-and-water diet or even a half-meal fast. On Wednesdays and Fridays I feasted on guilt instead. For years, I treated any kind of eating as an occasion that demanded a strict discipline that I failed to possess. I was a daily disappointment to myself that I could not endure even 24 hours of saintly self-denial. I hated that I could not correct my body’s imperfections or overcome its weaknesses.
When I looked back at home videos, my chest froze as I watched the pudgy, jiggly tween dance around the Christmas tree: This was how people saw me. I resolved to meet my goal weight by 18, then 19, then 20—or so I told myself as the years passed.
By the time I was 23 and in graduate school, I was still telling myself, “Next year.”
But I was no longer sure I wanted to imagine my flesh without my stretch marks, my razor scars and my gap-filling thighs. This was my body, after all. How would I recognize myself in a different one? But with the stress of starting my master’s studies and teaching for the first time, caring for that body was no longer a priority. I was too nauseated to eat, too tired to work out and too burdened to sleep.
One evening, skipping dinner in order to lesson-plan in my shared basement office, I glanced at an article from a unit on fat-shaming that a fellow instructor had developed for her composition class. The language in the article was surprisingly familiar because it connected descriptions of systems of oppression like sexism and ableism to “sizeism.”
Sizeism—discrimination based on a person’s weight or size—creates artificial classes of people, privileging one kind and licensing them to criticize and control other kinds. It also reinforces other classes: It privileges those who can afford the equipment, the food and the training to stay “fit,” and it discards those who cannot. It privileges limited aesthetic notions of masculinity and femininity and discards men and women who do not conform. It privileges those with the stamina to diet and exercise and discards those with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities.
People like me have unconsciously learned to hate the bodies God created because they do not meet the standard created by society.
Before this article, I had never heard my body type described in a way that was not shameful. People like me have unconsciously learned to hate the bodies God created for them because they do not meet the standard created by society.
This revelation compelled me to confront how I related to my body. For whom did I still try to resculpt it and why? I did not care what boys thought of me; I had no interest in associating with people who had an opinion about my body.
I was reminded of the medieval women mystics I was reading about in one of my graduate classes: saints who tried to recreate Christ’s pain in their flesh and feel the full extent of their embodied humanity, Christ’s creation. I slowly began to understand that God did not care how I looked. Was I really trying to make myself healthier, as my mom tried to tell me, or was I just participating in a system of oppression?
The mystics who saw their bodies in the crucified Christ’s, clothed in the Virgin’s flesh, and these self-identified fat women who refuse to see themselves as the outcasts that a capricious culture tries to tell them they are—together they turned my gaze to look at every inch of my body as an integral part of creation.
Was I really trying to make myself healthier, as my mom tried to tell me, or was I just participating in a system of oppression?
I gave up the guilt of thinking I was not trying hard enough. When I started eating again, I regained some of the pounds I had lost to anxiety—and kept them. This is how much I weigh when I nourish my body, and eating well helps keep the anxiety away.
Still, one does not give up long-held beliefs in a day. I only recently realized that I was never truly what many people would consider to be “fat,” and my size struggles did not measure up to those of many plus-size women. I still find my body to be endlessly frustrating, as it continues to do things without my consent: my hips and waist refuse to fit the same size of pants, my hands flare up with eczema scales and joint pain and my brain betrays my diligent maintenance by relapsing into paralyzing anxiety anyway. Although, aesthetically, I appreciate the Christian mystics, there are days when I tell my friends that, personally, I would prefer to live as a brain in a jar.
But after celebrating Christ Incarnate at Mass one Christmas Eve with more anxiety about my worthiness than joy, I fumbled for a friend’s assurances that you deserve to be close to your God, to mix your essence with Jesus. And later, naked in the shower, I thought about this sentiment and felt a new emotion. A quiet, tender intimacy, a blossom of warmth in my center, a drop of color flourishing into a glass of water—or a drop of water rippling through a cup of wine.
Only a small splash from the lavabo’s pitcher goes into the chalice for consecrating: our humanity entering Christ’s divinity, Christ’s divinity overwhelming our humanity. Some would be inclined to describe this as a sexual intimacy—the Teresas of Ávila and Catherines of Siena, with their arrow-penetrated hearts and holy-prepuce wedding rings.
But for me, it felt as though my mind had been made incarnate, called out into a body whose matter I shared with Christ: carbon, oxygen, holy bone and blood and muscle—the only things that made it matter.